When we designed the undergraduate program for economics at the Gokhale Institute, we were unable to fit in introductory courses on philosophy and anthropology. Among other courses, I should mention – it is not as if the absence of only these courses is my sole regret. But these two pinched more than the others, I’ll admit.
But one course that was included was sociology, and the reaction to it being a part of the syllabus has been mixed. “What is the use of studying sociology?” is a refrain I’ve heard for the past three years, and I wish it weren’t so. Why? Because not all answers to problems in the field of economics lie within the domain of economics.
I’ve long been convinced that “matters of culture” are central for understanding economic growth, but I’m also painfully aware these theories tend to lack rigor and even trying to define culture can waste people’s time for hours, with no satisfactory resolution.https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/12/deconstructing-cultural-codes.html
Tyler Cowen is speaking here of culture, of course, not sociology, but the two are at least related – and in my opinion are practically the same.
But it is all very well to talk of the importance of sociology when it comes to studying economics. But what exactly does it mean?
TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan wonders, in a recent column in the Business Standard, about why India just can’t crack the export problem, no matter what we try:
The latest trade data once again show that India hasn’t been able to solve its export problem. Over the last 75 years, India has succeeded in solving many problems. Food, health, education, low GDP growth rates, and much else. But there is one problem it has been unable to solve — exports.https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/why-does-india-continue-to-have-an-export-problem-sociology-may-answer-122120500165_1.html
At least a dozen committees over 60 years have tried to find solutions. The government itself has been straining hard to provide all kinds of incentives. All manner of policies have been tried. Nothing has worked.
India, despite its amazing businessmen, remains a poorly performing exporting country. Even the success of IT exports is really labour export in a disembodied form.
And, he says, if India’s best and brightest economists cannot solve thhis problem, perhaps we should be looking to other domains. What about, he says, sociology?
For instance, is something about our business communities responsible for this failure? Is it the nature of our political and administrative structure? Or is it a combination of all these things?https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/why-does-india-continue-to-have-an-export-problem-sociology-may-answer-122120500165_1.html
What might be the problem with our business communities? Is jugaad a good thing or a bad thing? Why are we so dependent on, and happy with, the concept of jugaad? Do we take quality as seriously as our competitors? If not, why not? Did our competitors take quality seriously in the past? If not, what made them change?
Is our administrative structure a little too overbearing? If so, why? Is it because of misaligned incentives, as an economist would say, or is there something else “there”? If so, what? What makes our bureaucracy different from those in other countries, from a sociological/cultural viewpoint? Have we always been different?
Not all of these questions have answers exclusively within the domain of economics. It makes sense to study other domains, and ask how the study of those domains enriches your understanding of economic theory. It cuts both ways, of course. While studying those other domains, your study of economics will help you too!
Now, I don’t know, alas, what sociology has to do with India’s poor export growth – if anything at all. But it certainly is a fun question to think about, and is a great example of why studying sociology as a student of economics absolitely makes sense.
One final point. I’m often asked this question by students who are just about starting to learn economics: “What should I read to understand economics better?” They think I’m being deliberately difficult when I answer by saying “absolutely everything that you can read, and not just within the field of economics”.
I’m not, of course. I couldn’t possibly be more serious!
Past posts on EFE that have mentioned sociology can be found here.